Boredom Snacking Isn’t Just For Adults
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Boredom snacking is a form of emotional eating. It is common in our modern environments and often develops into a habit that can be difficult to break. Emotional eating is defined as eating in response to emotions, particularly those that are negative (e.g. sadness, anger, boredom) and in the absence of hunger. In this situation, the motivation to eat is not driven my metabolic , but by emotional factors. The foods that are consumed are often palatable and therefore provide temporary hedonic pleasure to alleviate the experience of negative mood. Emotional eating is evident in children as young as two years old) and is therefore believed to develop during early life. It is said that Vicente Fox, the former Mexican president and CEO of Coca Cola Mexico promoted the consumption of Coca Cola to mothers with small children to calm their babies’ emotions.
Excessive snacking contributes to overeating, and typical “snack foods” can contribute to the development of many chronic illnesses and obesity. A recent study has found that even children as young as 4 years old will eat more when bored, likely influenced by interactions between parental modeling, learned emotional associations and temperament. As childhood obesity is a significant health concern, these findings are important to consider when searching for solutions.
The study Rebecca Stone and colleagues from the School of Psychology and Institute of Health and Neurodevelopment, College of Health & Life Sciences, Aston University, Aston Triangle, published October 2023 in the journal Food Quality and Preference, focused on the interaction between parental feeding practices and child temperament concerning emotional eating. Children ages 4-5 were placed in controlled environments where they were exposed to various mood-inducing scenarios. They were also given 6 bowls of different snacks including chocolate, grapes, carrots and cookies. Researchers then observed how these children responded to different emotions and their subsequent snacking behavior.
“…children who experienced boredom consumed significantly more total kilocalories than children in the control condition.”
The results found that “children who experienced boredom consumed significantly more total kilocalories than children in the control condition.” Specifically, the bored children ate 95 kcal on average, even when already full, compared to children in a neutral mood condition who ate an average of 59 kcal.
The study also highlighted the impact of a child’s temperament on emotional eating. Children with high negative affect, characterized by feelings of psychological distress, were found to be more likely to resort to emotional eating when faced with mood-inducing situations. Boredom can lead to negative emotions, which can trigger emotional eating in children with specific temperamental characteristics.
“High negative affect was also associated with a greater intake of sweet snacks…”
High negative affect was also associated with a greater intake of sweet snacks and therefore a greater intake of added sugars. There is strong evidence that increased added sugar intake during a time when food preferences are encoded in the brain is associated with a greater risk for obesity among children and adults.
The impact of emotionally driven snacking on children is significant, with potential long-term health consequences from excess caloric intake, especially in a food abundant environment. It is essential for caregivers to recognize their role in shaping children’s relationship with food.
“Boredom is important for the development of children’s sense of self and creativity…”
Boredom is important for the development of children’s sense of self and creativity, so rather than avoid boredom, allow children to cope with boredom without food. This could involve turning a child’s attention away from food during moments of boredom or even making snack foods less accessible to alter behavior.
Focusing on fostering a healthy relationship with food and teaching children to cope with emotions in alternative ways, such as through communication and non-food-related activities, may prevent the habit of boredom snacking and thus many of the downstream consequences.